Santa Maria del Mar

Basilica-Església de Santa Maria del Mar
Built: 1329-1383
Founded: Before 998 A.D.
Function: Parish church; minor basilica
Address: Plaça de Santa Maria

The magnificent 14th century Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar is, without question, the finest Gothic church in Barcelona, a city resplendent with Gothic buildings. It has been celebrated since its construction by the faithful, architects, writers, and artists as a miracle of light, geometry, and tranquility for nearly 700 years. However, the history of the parish is much older, and just as interesting as the building itself.

Between 300 and 500 A.D., the site of the basilica was a Roman cemetery outside the city walls; vestiges of the catacombs and tombs were re-discovered in the 1960s during restoration work on the foundations of the present building. Barcelona’s patron saint, St. Eulalia, was buried here after her martyrdom in approximately 303 A.D. Following the legalization of Christianity, devotion to her grew and her relics were preserved in a succession of churches on the site until they were transferred to the Cathedral.

The first documentary evidence for a church on the site dedicated to St. Mary of the Sea dates from 998 A.D., though when this structure was built and what it looked like remains unknown. What is known is that in 1324, the idea for a new and larger church began to take hold. The cornerstone for the present building was laid on March 25, 1329, the Feast of the Annunciation, by King Alfons the Pious. In an extraordinary effort for its time, combining donations of time and treasure from all of the local guilds, parishioners, the crown, and the diocese, construction proceeded so quickly that the church came into regular use by 1350, and the final stone was laid on November 3, 1383, with the formal dedication mass taking place on the Feast of the Assumption the following year.

Because of the comparatively rapid time frame in which it was built, and because the 14th century marked the height of Barcelona’s empire, wealth, and artistic achievement during the Middle Ages, there is a remarkable architectural unity in the completed building. Most large Gothic churches throughout Europe took centuries to build, and often ended up in a hodgepodge of different styles. Because it only took 54 years to build Santa Maria del Mar, the end result is wonderfully harmonious, strongly influenced by the clean-lined, geometric Cistercian Gothic popular in France and in Northern Spain during this period.

What most strikes visitors upon entering the building is the vast and austere interior space, beautifully lit by clerestory windows and supported only by slender octagonal columns; it is universally regarded as a marvel of engineering. Part of the reason for the cleanliness of the interior is that the church was burned, like many others, by the Leftists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The fire destroyed many of the altarpieces and statuary that had been placed in the church over the centuries, particularly during the Baroque and Neo-Gothic periods in the 18th and 19th centuries. The end result was, ironically enough, that Santa Maria del Mar emerged from the ashes more beautiful than she had been in years, stripped of well-intentioned but tacky frills and do-dads that did not suit her.

10 thoughts on “Santa Maria del Mar

  1. Thank you, William Newton, for your presentation above.
    After reading “Cathedral of the Sea” I had to visit this church (in 2009). It is so beautiful, a miracle, in a way like Maria was – and still is, complex and simple at the same time, not overloaded with statues, paintings etc. Inside I intensely feel being alive, as if the energy and love of those people carrying stones and constructing this masterpiece seven hundred years ago is still there – for me – and for all living people visiting her at all times. I will visit her again and again.

  2. I am interested in visiting the inside Santa María del Mar and attend a Mass there when I visit in Fall of 2012. I read the interesting book about the church, so interesting and educational. I have tried to find the Mass schedule on other web pages but hace not found this information. I would like attend a weekly mass not Sunday since I will be in Barcelona on dias laborables only. Gracias,

      • Thank you so much for answering my question. Also your presentation is one of the best I have read about La Catedral del Mar. I think everyone who reads this book will want to visit it because it transports the reader to that era in time. Also I was not aware it had been very much damaged during the war period by the leftists. Thank you again for your wonderful presentation and photos.

      • I’m glad you liked the piece, thank you. I hope that information on mass times was helpful. I would either email or call and double-check with the parish just to make sure that the mass time listing is correct. There may be early morning masses as well.

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  4. Hi William
    Thank you for the article. We were married in Santa Maria del Mar in September 2005 by Padre Alberto Taulle. We went back annually for a few years and met with him. He said that were the only foreigners to return and say thanks. Unfortunately he died in 2007/8 and the current custodian only carries out weddings for locals.

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